Lee Valley & Veritas
Woodworking Newsletter
  Volume 11, Issue 5 - May 2019    
Wood Lathe Tips

Much of the turning we do at our shop, Murphy's Fine Woodworking, is for legs for tables and chairs, which we do on our JET® lathe. So, almost all our work is spindle turning rather than faceplate. As I was writing this article, I realized we needed a new mallet as, after almost 30 years, my cocobolo mallet is showing its age.

I used some hard maple we had in the wood rack and made a mallet in 20 minutes. The finished size is 2-1/2" in diameter and 9" long. The head is 3-3/4" long, and the handle is about 5-1/2" to fit my hand, which is a bit of a paw.

Small lathe stand

Spindle Turning

When turning a cylinder, hold the piece between the live center and the cup or dead-end center and use a gouge to rough the piece. If your stock is more than 3" square, first cut it to an octagonal shape on the band saw. Locate the center of the stock and mark it with a punch.

Marking the center   Center marked with spur center

If the wood is very hard, drill a small hole at the center and cut shallow kerfs across the corners. Place a spur center in position and strike it with a wooden or rubber mallet to seat it firmly in place. It is a good idea to mark the end of the piece at one of the spurs so that if you take it out of the lathe, it can be put back in the same position.

Spur center   Cup center

Place the work between centers and turn the tailstock handle until the cup center seats firmly on the wood. Release the pressure a bit and apply a few drops of oil or graphite. Adjust the tool rest to clear your work by about 1/8", with the top of the tool rest about the same above the center of the piece.

The lathe speed should be adjusted according to the diameter, using higher speeds for smaller diameters. Always start turning at the lowest speed until the wood becomes a cylinder. This is the number one mistake beginning turners make. Turning a large piece at a speed that is too high can be dangerous to your well-being. Imagine a baseball bat being thrown at you at high speed!


Speeds for Spindle Turning


Dia. of the Stock

Roughing Out

General Cutting


Under 2"

900-1300 RPM



2" to 4"

600-1000 RPM



4" to 6"

600-800 RPM



6" to 8"

400-600 RPM



8" to 10"

300-400 RPM



Over 10"

200-300 RPM




This chart is posted on the wall above our lathe so that as we turn stock, we refer to it to ensure we do not have flying baseball bats!

There are two methods of holding the gouge. The first is to place your thumb over the gouge and your fingers under it, using your forefinger as a guide against the tool rest. The second is to place your hand over the tool with your wrist bent and against the tool rest. Both work well, and you may find yourself changing from one to the other as you work.

Ready to start turning
Working with a roughing gouge

After the piece is finished with the roughing gouge to size, the finish turning is done with a skew. This can be done using either a scraping or cutting method.

Turning a tool handle

There are six basic types of turning tools. Gouges are used for rough-cutting stock to a round shape, skews for smooth cuts to finish a surface, parting tools for cutting a groove, diamond tools for finishing the inside or corners, flat-nose scrapers for scraping a straight surface and round-nose scrapers for scraping concave cuts and circular grooves. It is best to buy a well-known starter set and add to it as your skills increase. We have used Robert Sorby tools for years, and they have performed well for the limited amount of turning that we do. The Henry Taylor High-Speed Steel Pro Turning Set matches our set of tools.

Turning a mallet

A lathe can give you a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. In a few minutes, you can go from rough material to a finished product.

In terms of small lathes, there is an array of stands, some of which are mobile. In my opinion, all are very expensive. Our stand is made of 8/4 leftover white oak and has a mobile base from Portamate®.

We used 3/4" plywood for the top to fit the lathe. The stand has two side supports with mortise and tenon joints at the bottom feet and a lower shelf to hold the tools.

Mobile base   Side supports
Lower tool shelf

Text and photos by Brian H. Murphy
Murphy's Fine Woodworking

In the furniture design field since 1981, Brian H. Murphy is recognized as a leader in the Arts and Crafts design discipline. His furniture is in galleries in Muncy, Pennsylvania, and throughout the United States. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his work and continues to design in a bold new style.

In 2008, he was awarded first honorable mention in the Custom Woodworking Business Magazine, a national contest for residential furniture. In 2012 and also 2015, he was among the top three in the same national contest. He has been recognized in numerous magazines and has been featured on the cover of a new book by Taunton Press.

He is the past Chair for the Escondido Chamber of Commerce, Vice Chair of the Escondido Arts Partnership, Chair of the Escondido Public Art Commission and past Chair of the North County Cemetery District. Brian resides in Escondido, California, with his wife Nancy. They have two children and three grandchildren.

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